We Will Reap As We Sow

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IT IS a piece of legislation nobody knows much about, despite its importance and controversial nature. The Seeds Bill is a child of the NDA government, circa 2004. In 2006, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Agriculture sent it back to the government, suggesting an overhaul. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar tried to have it on the floor in the Budget session this year, but that didn’t materialise.

Recently, he held a multi-party meeting in the hope of getting a consensus on the bill. The most potent protest came from the Congress’ own government in Andhra Pradesh.

India desperately needs a law to regulate the private seed industry; the existing law was written in 1966, when publicsector companies ran the business. Over the past two decades, state governments have struggled to punish seed companies that cheat farmers with poorquality seeds because the Consumer Protection Act is all that they have, a minor restraint at the best of times.

The Seeds Bill is supposed to provide one law ensuring seed quality, to penalise companies that sell substandard seeds to farmers. It has several provisions — both in the first version and subsequent ones — that provide for regulating seed companies. Its critics say they are not enough.

In 2006, the Standing Committee conducted a thorough review of the bill and sent it back to the ministry with a list of suggestions. Committee chair Ram Gopal Yadav was praised widely for the way he conducted the review. The next draft was to account for the suggestions.

Why is it stuck? The biggest block is price control. The bill does not give the Centre or the state governments the power to control prices. The Left Front has made it clear it will not let the bill pass without a provision allowing governments to control prices. CPI’S D Raja and CPM’S Penumalli Madhu have both taken an active interest and suggested amendments. BJP Kisan Morcha president Omprakash Dhankar has also pressed for price control.

But the most vocal demand for seed price control has come from AP, the state where most of India’s private seed industry is based. Faced with acute farmer distress, the government wants to maintain its hold on the rural constituency that voted it to power twice.

The AP government has been locked in a longstanding legal battle with some large seed companies and their big daddy Monsanto over the price of Bt cotton seeds. Monsanto has claimed the price control the state government has imposed is illegal. Prices of Bt cotton dropped from over `1,800 per packet in 2003 to under `700 now. In this cut, Monsanto lost big time because most of the cut came from royalty it charged seed companies for its patented Bt sequence. So, AP wants not just price control but a cap on royalty payments as percentage of the seed price.

Pawar disagrees, arguing the bill is to regulate seed quality, not seed prices. He is in favour of letting the market regulate itself through competition. His ministry has warned that the international seed industry will leave India if price is controlled, denying India the latest in seed technology.

The Seed Bill is opposed within the UPA by the Congress government in AP, that fears losing its rural vote bank

Let them leave, say the Left and sections of the Congress. Since India controls food prices, they say the cost of farm inputs like seeds should also be controlled.

This is where the bill is stuck. Most other issues — like the quantum of penalty and the agency empowered to determine compensation and penalties — were resolved through negotiations. If the bill does get tabled before this session ends, expect some heat.

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